Cumberland Caverns offers bluegrass from the underworld

submitted photo
The John Cowan Band performs a Bluegrass Underground concert at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville.

submitted photo The John Cowan Band performs a Bluegrass Underground concert at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville.

It's an odd feeling walking into a cave at midday to hear a musical performance.

The innards of the limestone cavern are dark and rocky and cool and full of winding pathways, occasional pools of water, slender spires of waxy-looking rock jutting up from the floor and down from the ceilings and overhangs. There are large spaces — some low-ceilinged, some with exceptionally high "ceilings" — that have been carved out by centuries of erosion caused by water flow. An echo chamber of a space, you'd think, where any strands of music created would fly up and around, lost for a second before hitting stone and bouncing back in multiple fading waves of sound to crash discordantly into the music and words that follows.

You'd think.

And generally speaking, you'd be right. But if that cavernous space happens to be the Volcano Room at Cumberland Caverns near McMinnville, you'd be mistaken. Turns out, this unique, electrified underground ballroom with the dirt "stage" on the natural rock platform and a three-quarter-ton crystal chandelier hanging from the high ceiling above is acoustically blessed. I dare you to find a more dramatic setting for the emotional expression of music than a beautifully lit natural amphitheater 333 feet under the earth.

This combination of outstanding acoustics and dark atmosphere calls up a primordial sense of reverent awe. Your mind and soul are beguiled into believing it's nighttime and, somehow, long ago. That you're participating in an ancient ritual, perhaps a celebration of the coming of a new season or an observance of gratitude for life's abundance. In a way, you are.

Bluegrass Underground is a special music performance series that is soon to begin its fifth season of concerts and radio broadcasts. It is the brainchild of creator and executive producer Todd Mayo, an advertising professional and Tennessee native who had this bright idea after visiting Cumberland Caverns about four years ago.

Mayo had never produced anything of this nature but was intrigued by his underground concert idea. He asked the cavern tour guides if there had ever been musical performances in the space and learned that only the occasional wedding and Christmas choir presentation had taken place. The fact that any kind of music performance had happened was heartening but it wasn't until sound engineers tested the acoustics that he became confident a full-on concert could really work.

"The Volcano Room has some very special acoustic properties," says Mayo. "Three-and-a-half million years of time and water worked together to create a kind of a whirlpool that carved out these spaces, and it's almost a perfect space to hear music. It's almost like going to see a concert inside a recording studio. "

Mayo spoke with a friend with connections to WSM, the country/bluegrass music radio station famous for live broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry, and asked him what he thought of the idea. He liked it too, and indicated he could be helpful in making connections with bluegrass artists. Mayo then came up with the Bluegrass Underground name, created a logo, put up a website and got what he deemed "the perfect band for our inaugural show" — The SteelDrivers —in August 2008.

Mayo has a "big tent" notion of what bluegrass is that includes everything from country and folk to Celtic and blues.

The new season of Bluegrass Underground begins Sept. 22 with performances by Town Mountain and Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen. October will bring shows by the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band and by Ralph Stanley. The shows for November and beyond are still being arranged.

Bluegrass Underground is broadcast live on WSM radio and streamed worldwide on and filmed for broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service

But why would anyone in East Tennessee opt to listen on radio or watch it on TV? They can't come close to capturing the thrill of experiencing the performances live in this remarkable underground venue.

And when you can drive to one of the shows and get back home by 8 p.m. Eastern time, it seems a no-brainer.



A few important details in mind:

- McMinnville is in the Central Time Zone

- The caverns stay a constant temperature of about 56 degrees.

- Tickets can be bought in advance at or at the Cumberland Caverns ticket box office, which opens two hours prior to a show. Prices range from approximately $20-$40.

- Seating is general admission.


- Cumberland Caverns

If you're going to a Bluegrass Underground show, you might as well go a couple hours early and take the entire Cumberland Caverns tour. A scenic one-and-a-half mile walking tour shows large rooms, unusual formations, a beautiful waterfall and several pools where water collects deep underground. Cumberland Caverns also features the Low Down Dirty Gem Mine where youngsters can empty mining rough out of prepared bags through a sluice and discover tantalizing "treasures."


- Falcon Rest Mansion & Gardens

This restored 10,000-square-foot mansion built in 1896 has Victorian-era antique furniture and greeters, storytellers and guides in period costume. It offers four different dinner theater shows for groups of 20 or more. Falcon Manor is a small B&B on the grounds with furnishings and décor complementary to that found at the mansion.


- The Southern Museum & Galleries of Photography, Culture & History

Folks interested in Tennessee history or photography will love the collection of late-19th/early 20th century photographs, photography equipment and artifacts, along with music and literary memorabilia at this downtown McMinnville historical repository in a three-story building built in 1889.


- Rock Island State Park

About a half-hour northeast of McMinnville is Rock Island State Park, a gorgeous 883-acre piece of forested, rocky real estate featuring Great Falls of the Caney Fork River, along with smaller falls and plenty of ahhhh-inducing views. The park has cabins, campgrounds, hiking trails and picnic facilities.


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